The Sift: New ‘Verification Handbook’ | Determining social distance in photos | Is ‘The Last Dance’ journalism?

  News Literacy Project
The European Journalism Centre, a journalism training and advocacy nonprofit in Maastricht, Netherlands, has released the third edition of its Verification Handbook, an online primer designed to help journalists investigate online content. The guide is edited by Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed News and a digital fact-checking pioneer, and includes contributions from a range of distinguished journalists and misinformation researchers.

The book is divided into three parts: an introduction, which explains the stakes of digital verification work; a section on investigating individual accounts and pieces of content; and a section on analyzing platforms and influence operations.

Though it was created to help journalists avoid being exploited by “coordinated and well-funded campaigns to capture our attention, trick us into amplifying messages, and bend us to the will of states and other powerful forces,” the book is also broadly useful for anyone interested in honing digital verification skills — especially educators working with students.

Every article addresses a vital topic; several stand out for adoption in the classroom:
  • “The Age of Information Disorder” by Claire Wardle, the head of strategic direction and research at First Draft. It includes three important elements for students: a taxonomy for categorizing different types of misinformation; an explanation of approaches to the thorny topic of determining the intent behind a piece of misinformation; and a graphic — the Trumpet of Amplification — that shows how bad actors “use coordination to move information through the ecosystem,” promoting falsehoods in closed groups and conspiracy communities until they trend on social media and gain the attention of professional media.
    • Idea: In groups or individually, ask students to collect 10 recent examples of misinformation (by using fact-checking websites or this newsletter’s viral rumor rundown). Then have them trade those examples with another group or student and determine which of Wardle’s seven forms of information disorder best fits each example.
  • “Spotting bots, cyborgs and inauthentic activity” by Charlotte Godart and Johanna Wild, two open-source investigators affiliated with the online investigations collective Bellingcat. It offers an approachable yet detailed look at automated and semi-automated accounts. It also gives clear steps anyone can take to investigate suspicious accounts; explains common red flags for automated accounts; and links to several useful online tools, including three — Botometer, Bot Sentinel and accountanalysis — that analyze Twitter accounts for bot-like patterns.
    • Idea: Review with students the common characteristics of automated accounts on Twitter, such as usernames that the platform automatically assigns, a lack of a profile picture, and unusual account activity. Have them work in teams to collect a number of accounts that they suspect are bots. Then have the teams trade their collections and use one of the free analysis tools linked above to evaluate the likelihood that the accounts are automated.
  • “Investigating websites,” by Craig Silverman. It explains how to explore who is behind a website; how to uncover networks of shady sites; how to analyze web content (including webpages that have been deleted); how to use tools such as BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle to map the spread of specific links or domains across social media; and how to investigate domain registrations and IP addresses using tools such as DomainBigData.
    • Idea: Ask students to read this article, then divide them into groups. Give each group a different tool mentioned in this piece; ask them to explore it, and then explain it, to their classmates.
Resource: The Check Center, part of NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom, includes tutorials and fact-checking missions for students. (Registration is required for teacher or parent access; NLP is currently waiving new student license fees for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and parents engaged in distance learning or homeschooling as a result of school closures can apply here for access through June 30.)
NO: This tweet (which was taken down for violating Twitter rules) does not show British soldiers preparing for a protest in London. YES: It shows Malaysian soldiers cordoning off an area in Selayang Baru, a township north of Kuala Lumpur, on April 25.

Discuss: Is there any evidence that the person who posted this video out of context did so as a joke — to make fun of people with specific beliefs, including those who embrace conspiracy theories about 5G mobile networks? What unintended consequences might satirical falsehoods like this one have once they are shared online? Is there any evidence that people took this post seriously?

Idea: Build a digital verification challenge around this tweet (archived here; the video is here) to teach students how to apply critical observation skills, search the internet for stills from a video, and use lateral reading strategies and basic geolocation skills to debunk false claims online. (This tweet thread explains how to do this in detail.)
YES: The White House Gift Shop is selling coronavirus commemorative coins. NO: The store is not affiliated with or controlled by President Donald Trump, the White House or any other U.S. government agency or office, and it is not the official gift store of the White House. YES: The White House Gift Shop grew out of a fund established in 1946 to support White House police officers and their families; the first gifts it sold were pens for President Harry S. Truman to give to guests. YES: The shop was located in the White House complex, and only government staff and Secret Service members with White House access could shop there. YES: To enable the public to purchase its products, the store moved online in 1998; in 2012, ownership was transferred to a private company with no relationship to the government. YES: The store makes donations to law enforcement agencies across the country. According to owner Anthony Giannini, the proceeds from the limited-edition coronavirus coin will go to three COVID-19 research centers and the New York Police Department. YES: On April 29, LGBTQ Nation — an online news outlet focused on LGBTQ issues — published an article about the coins that said, in its last paragraph, that the store “is only tangentially related to the actual White House”; this led some readers to believe that the store is run by, or associated with, the White House when it is not.
NO: This is not an authentic photo of the exterior of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle. YES: The words “Center for Global Human Population Reduction” were added to the image. YES: Conspiracy theorists in fringe online communities have devised a number of baseless, byzantine theories in an attempt to connect Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to the COVID-19 pandemic. YES: Wild misinterpretations of a 2010 TED Talk by Gates — in which he talked about the impact of human population growth on the climate — have fueled some of these false theories.

Idea: Have students use basic geolocation skills to locate the exterior of the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle and verify that the text in question does not appear on this wall. You can also have students explore user-contributed photos of the building on Google Maps to provide further confirmation that this image is doctored.

Discuss: Could this doctored photo have been created as a joke intended to make fun of people with conspiratorial beliefs? What might be the unintended consequences of satirical fakes when they are shared online?
NO: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not suddenly reduce, by 30,000, the number of reported deaths from COVID-19. NO: The CDC did not report that the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States as of May 2 (the date of this tweet) is 37,000. YES: The CDC’s COVID-19 death count — which is updated daily based on reports from state health departments across the country — was 64,283 on May 2. YES: The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a division of the CDC that compiles official health statistics and data, had confirmed 37,308 COVID-19 deaths — based on death certificates — by May 1. YES: The notes under the NCHS table state that there is a “lag in time [from one week to eight weeks or more] between when the death occurred and when the death certificate is completed, submitted to NCHS and processed for reporting purposes.” YES: According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center tracker, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States was about 36,600 on April 20:

The Johns Hopkins University website that tracks COVID-19 cases and deaths reported 36,600 deaths in the U.S. by April 20 (see the graph at the lower right). Click the image to view a larger version.

As photos of people who appear to be flouting social distancing measures circulate online, critics have noted how misleading they can be. At issue is the way that camera angles and different lenses can affect the appearance of gaps between people: telephoto lenses and zoomed-up digital cameras (including those in cellphones) can compress distances, while wide-angle lenses can exaggerate them.

In an April 26 report for TV 2, a television network in Denmark, two photojournalists demonstrated the dramatic impact of this “perspective distortion” by shooting the same people in Copenhagen at the same moment from different angles using different lenses. The same day, a man in England used a tweet thread to demonstrate how the composition of a viral photo of the seafront in Bournemouth — one that sparked outrage when it was published — collapsed distances in misleading ways. An April 24 photo of diners sitting on the patio of a restaurant in Colleyville, Texas, and photos of a beach in Jacksonville, Florida, taken shortly after it partially reopened on April 17 also sparked debates online.
Note: While it may be tempting to see such distortions as deliberate, it’s important to realize that almost all photos inevitably misrepresent distances to some degree. Also, the use of a telephoto lens does not indicate an intent to produce misleading photos. This Facebook post by Vic Micolucci, an investigative reporter and anchor at WJXT in Jacksonville, explains that most of the differences in the photos of the beach there were due to the fact that they were shot from different angles with different equipment.
Also note: Martin Sylvest, a photographer quoted in the TV 2 report (linked above), explains any potentially distorting effects that result from his methods in the descriptions of the photos he submits.
Discuss: Can any single photo accurately capture all aspects of a given scene? How can news outlets be more transparent about the effects of “perspective distortion” in the photos they publish?
Idea: Ask students to take two digital photos of objects that are a foot or more apart — one with the camera’s zoom at the maximum setting and one using a close-up or wide-angle setting (see the example here). Compare the appearance of the distance between the objects. Then ask them to review examples of online photos that depict a lack of social distancing and try to evaluate whether the photos are substantive or misleading.
YouTube users in the United States will soon be seeing information panels from third-party fact-checkers at the top of some search results, the company announced on April 28, citing the rapid spread of misinformation about COVID-19. The panels will appear in searches for specific claims and will feature relevant articles from “an open network of third-party publishers” of fact checks.

More than a dozen U.S. fact-checkers are already involved, the company said, including, PolitiFact, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker and The Dispatch. Participants in this network must use the ClaimReview tagging system, a protocol developed by Duke Reporters’ Lab that extracts key details from fact checks so they can be displayed on other platforms. (Duke Reporters’ Lab is headed by Bill Adair, the creator of PolitiFact.) In addition, they must be either what YouTube calls an “authoritative publisher” — meaning an “established and relevant” source whose “expertise and trustworthiness” have been evaluated by external raters — or a verified signatory of the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network.

In its announcement, YouTube said its systems “will take some time” to “fully ramp up.” It piloted this feature in Brazil and India last year and plans to expand it to more countries over time.
Note: The Google-owned video platform also said in its announcement that it is donating $1 million through the Google News Initiative to the International Fact-Checking Network, which is based at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training and advocacy center in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Also note: Citing violation of “community guidelines,” YouTube has removed a widely disseminated video of a April 22 press briefing by two California doctors, Daniel Erickson and Artin Massihi, who used results from more than 5,000 COVID-19 tests conducted at their Bakersfield-area urgent care centers and private testing site to argue that shelter-in-place orders and business shutdowns are no longer needed. Erickson urged reporters to check with emergency doctors, who, he said, would support their conclusions. However, the American Academy of Emergency Medicine and the American College of Emergency Physicians condemned their remarks, saying that “as owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.”
Discuss: Do you think YouTube’s move to highlight fact-checked articles in searches will help slow the spread of misinformation on its platform? Why or why not? What else could YouTube do to combat the spread of falsehoods?
Idea: Once this feature is live, have students test it by searching for a specific COVID-19 claim (the company’s announcement uses “covid and ibuprofen” as an example). Ask them to provide a short summary of their experience, including the claim they searched, what their search results were, and whether a fact check appeared above the search results. Then ask them to do the same search on other sites (such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest) and evaluate which is best at highlighting credible, authoritative information and demoting misinformation.
Ken Burns, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, reignited an ongoing debate when he criticized The Last Dance, the 10-part series on Michael Jordan and his last season with the Chicago Bulls, in an April 29 Wall Street Journal piece. Asked for his thoughts on the series, which has attracted rave reviews, Burns said he “never, never, never, never” would have agreed to a partnership with Jordan’s production company, as The Last Dance filmmakers did.

“That’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business,” he said, adding that he had not watched the first four episodes. (The series began April 19 on ESPN, with two new episodes on Sundays through May 17; Netflix is airing it outside the United States on Mondays.)

“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,” Burns told the Journal. “It’s the opposite direction of where we need to be going.”

That’s not everyone’s perspective, though, as Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday argued in 2018. Documentaries shouldn’t be judged as journalism, she wrote, since they “also obey the conventions of cinema, using visual language, music and editing less in service to neutral information delivery than to tell vivid, powerful stories.”

As for The Last Dance, Jimmy Traina wrote in Sports Illustrated, it’s about “how a basketball team won a championship thanks to the greatest player on the earth. It doesn't require a hard-hitting journalistic angle. Plus, the series doesn't exist without Jordan being a partner because he owned all the footage we've been treated to.”
Discuss: Should documentaries be considered journalism, or are they something different? What standards, if any, do documentaries follow? Do all documentaries follow a common set of guidelines for accuracy?
Idea: Have students review the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Then ask them to list which journalism standards they think documentaries should follow and explain their thinking. If they believe that documentaries should not follow journalism standards, ask them why they think that way
Another idea: Ask students to research other documentaries that have drawn criticism, especially those whose accuracy, independence or fairness has been questioned, and present their findings.
Your weekly issue of The Sift is put together by Peter Adams (@PeterD_Adams) and Suzannah Gonzales of the News Literacy Project.
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